Vocal Warmup + Cool Down Exercises for Singers

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Photo Source: Photo by Obie Fernandez on Unsplash

It’s pretty simple. Just as a dancer does physical stretches before and after a dance class, audition, or performance to ensure their muscles are supple, prepared for precision, and not subject to strain, vocal performers need to do a warmup before extended (or critical) voice use and a cool down after “the show.” If you fail to cool down the muscles, lactic acid can pool in the muscles, making post-performance injury more likely.

A vocal warmup shouldn’t take more than about 15 minutes for a well-conditioned singer and needs to encompass breathing, voicing, and resonance and articulation exercises. Avoid a lapse of more than 20 minutes between the warmup and when you sing to reap the warmup benefits. The cool down focuses on the vocal folds and doesn’t need be more than about 2–3 minutes, done within 5 minutes of the final sing. Vocal cool down is especially important if the final sing is aggressive, loud, or uses long high notes.

Here are some of my favorite warmups you can try and a cool down exercise.

Physical stretching of the upper torso helps open the thoracic cavity, expand lower rib cage movement, and strengthen the flexibility of inhalation and exhalation. Arch the left arm up and over toward the right shoulder, breathe, and feel the “floating ribs” expand and contract as you breathe in and out. Change sides and repeat. Now bring your arms out, palms facing the ceiling, and feel the “floating ribs” expand and contract with each breath cycle (purse your lips for extrapulmonary drive). Keep your upper thoracic cavity stable and work your core support muscles. Now, exhale sharply on “p” (unvoiced “puh”), 50 times, and feel those muscles get ready for action. You can follow the 50 “puh” with a similar set of 45 seconds of unvoiced quick “puh” with a random pitched, short “la.”

Next, warmup your filter subsystem for resonance and articulation. Exaggerate the diphthongs and pitches in “How now brown cow?”, avoiding wide oral openings, seeking to have great intraoral space (think Julia Child). Now, recite your favorite Shakespeare sonnet (great tongue twisters which require pitch range of motion and good breath control), making sure you can feel the sonnet resonating in your mouth and skull. The lips and tongue tip should bounce around the wonderful noises of those consonants. If you are not a fan of Shakespeare, try repeating “Unique New York” numerous times, changing your pitch throughout the phrase repetitions.

The vocal folds now need to be warmed up, using a variety of pitches, loudness levels, and registers. Vocal slides with increasing intervals should precede any triad intervals or vocal acrobatics. Some singers have better success starting with the “oo” vowel while others prefer the “ee” or “ah” vowel. In general, the vowel “ee” works well for low and mid-range pitches but can be strained for higher pitches (especially if the lips spread for the vowel), however this vowel does give a nice bright sound. The vowel “oo” and “oh” often work well for the mid and higher. They also help stretch the pharyngeal region, letting you find the “hooty” quality and access to higher pitches. Vocal flexibility exercises should be next, gradually changing the tension of the lower pitch muscle (Thyroarytenoid muscle) with those needed for higher pitches (Cricothyroid muscle). If you change the loudness on a note, you’ll also warm up the ability to change the vocal fold edge contour, reducing fatigue and helping register coordination. Here’s a tip: use a quick diminuendo (go from louder to softer) on the last note just before a much higher note. The diminuendo will thin the vocal fold edge, making it easier to start the high note. Then go ahead and do a quick crescendo (go from softer to louder) on the high note.

Lip flutters (“raspberries”), rolled “r” and singing “oo” into a 5 mm drinking straw (especially if the straw is submerged in about 2 inches of water) is a great exercise to balance the subsystems of your voice. These exercises help you support your voice, not push the breath, reduces resistance demands on the delicate vocal folds, and streamlines the focus in the front of your face (the mask).

As for the best cool down, lip flutters and descending five-note slides (“oh” to “ah”) with a little trill on the lowest note can be great cool downs for the delicate vocal folds. The cool down needs to adjust your voice from performance mode to conversational mode. Take the slides down as low as you can to help transition from your singing voice range to your speaking voice range. Then, count from 120, keeping the voice flexible in pitch, loudness, rate, and pauses. Sudden cessation of voice use can leave your voice “high and dry.” Cool those jets down.

Make sure to sip (not guzzle) water after a solid sing too. Remember that you used your voice during the show, and now it’s time to let the audience members use their voice. Avoid laughing gregariously, which can cause trauma to the vocal folds. Try to start your laugh with some gentle breath pulses, which sets up support, and makes others think that you felt it was really funny! Your vocal folds are used for talking, singing, laughing, and grunting. Choose two.

If you experience a sudden change in voice quality or vocal range, stop all voice use and see a qualified laryngologist to make sure you haven’t injured the edge of the vocal fold. This is particularly important with more aggressive voice tasks, or when your core support may be compromised due to stomach flu, menstrual cramps, etc. With heavy voice use, it may take up to 36 hours for the voice to recover, but if you’re conditioned for the vocal task you should be fine. 

So have some fun with your voice, let people listen to you rather than shoving the voice out to them, and sing and speak “smart.” Think about your vocal preparedness and then embrace your daily vocal marathons.

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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Dr. Linda Carroll
Dr. Linda Carroll maintains a private practice in voice pathology and voice training in NYC and NH, and serves as research scientist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She holds dual undergraduate degrees in voice performance and music education, and Masters/Doctoral degrees in Applied Speech Science from Columbia University. Her expertise is laryngeal function and vocal health in the voice profession. Her studio has over 60 Grammy nominations.
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